Reverend John Wilkins Walks In His Father’s Hill Country Footsteps on ‘Trouble’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

We baby boomers grew up with that indelible chorus “’Cause that is no way to get along,” from the tune “Prodigal Son,” written by the Reverend Robert Wilkins and popularized by The Rolling Stones on Beggars Banquet. Heck, that was over a half century ago. They say that things have a way of repeating themselves every fifty years or so. This is not exactly repeating itself, but we are hearing Wilkins’ son, Reverend John Wilkins, with his own blues album debut, Trouble. Yet, there is much more to Rev. John’s story.

Like his dad, the North Mississippi-based Rev. John blends blues and gospel but also hill country rhythms and sounds. He went from the juke joints to the pulpit but like that ‘prodigal son’ returns to the secular music of blues, returning in more ways than one. Rev. John has miraculously risen from a month-long stay in intensive care battling COVID-19 in a Memphis hospital. So, Trouble is like at least two resurrections. The album is a joyous blues-gospel statement with music influenced not only by his dad but by Ray Charles, Junior Kimbrough, Bill Withers and others.  Wilkins sings and plays guitar alongside his three daughters, known as The Staples Singers of the North Mississippi Hill Country if you will, on background vocals (Tangela Longstreet, Joyce Jones, and Tawana Cunningham). The supporting quartet is guitarist Kevin Cubbins, bassist Jimmy Kinnard and Memphis mainstays drummer Steve Potts and organist Rev. Charles Hodges.

As a reference point, Rev. John’s music, though more refined, bears some similarities to another Hill country legend, the late Leo “Bud Welch” especially Welch’s latter records which fused blues and gospel like 2019’s The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name. The opening blues-gospel title track is a powerful urging of hope, sung by conviction from a man who emerged from a near death experience. The rousing big sounding “Down Home Church” has that funky blues feel. “You Can’t Hurry God” is one of the call-and-response gospel tunes that signifies Wilkins’ sound and the band takes a similar approach with Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” with Hodges laying down his distinctive B3 patterns. The traditional “Wade in the Water” follows in spirited, raise-the-roof fashion. 

“Walk With Me” continues the gospel sequence as does “God Is Able” as it’s increasingly evident that Rev. John and his daughters have sung together quite often, not unlike Pop Staples and his clan. The combination of these four immense, soaring voices is akin to a choir of many. Every so often, Rev. John steps in for a riveting guitar solo as Hodges and the band underpin the sound. “The Darkest Hour” is led by his daughters as if they were singing for their dad’s recovery. They continue in the lead on “Found Love” before Hodges leads into the call-and-response joyous “I’ve Got Something.” More than appropriately, we hear Wilkins singing “I’ve come through the storm and the rain, I’ve come through the storm and the rain, and I made it” on the powerful closing track that morphs into yet another gospel rave-up, “I’m Going Home,” undeniably capturing the emotion he felt when leaving the hospital.

This is an album that will surely draw attention in both blues and gospel circles. John Wilkins says, “Daddy loved blues. I noticed Daddy, when he changed over to gospel, he kept some of the same music and rearranged the songs. It’s sort of like I tell people I used to play the blues and go to clubs and I used to dance on the floor. I say, I haven’t quit dancing, I just changed partners.”

A synopsis of his back story seems fitting although it may not quite measure up to his modern-day true-life experience.  Wilkins is one of seven children born in Memphis, TN to Robert Wilkins from nearby Hernando, MS and Ida Mae Wilkins from Coldwater, MS. The elder Wilkins, also known as “Tim,” was a pre-war innovator of the blues before turning to a life of ministry. His first Victor release in 1928 was “Rolling Stone,” which Muddy Waters later used as an influence to rework “Catfish Blues” into a signature tune that, in turn, lead to the naming of a certain British Rock band in the mid-60’s. Robert Wilkins had abandoned the blues life following a violent incident in a juke joint in the late 30’s. After joining the church, Wilkins kept the music of his most well-known song, “That’s No Way to Get Along” and updated the lyrics to tell the tale of the “Prodigal Son,” which he recorded in an epic 10-minute version in 1964. And then completing the circle, the later version was covered by the Rolling Stones as we’ve alluded to.

John Wilkins started performing with his father when he was very young. But like the elder Wilkins, the lure of the blues was a temptation for the emerging guitarist. As a young performer John began to drive from Memphis to play in North Mississippi juke joints on Friday and Saturday nights in his mother’s hometown, returning to Memphis in time to play in his father’s church on Sunday morning. His mother showed her disapproval when she told him “Boy, you can’t play both of them. Something gonna happen to you!” And, indeed he later got into a scrape in a juke joint.  Nonetheless, he continued to play both.

This is not his first recording either. He logged plenty of session work at several of the Memphis legendary studios, including Stax, Royal Studios and Memphis Sound, among others. He met soul legend O.V. Wright in the 1960’s, who was then singing with the Sunset Travelers, because they were on the same gospel circuit as Wilkins’s group, the M&N Gospel Singers. When Wright made his break-out secular recordings, he asked his friend John Wilkins to join him. “That request led to Wilkins playing lead guitar on the seminal 1965 O.V. Wright classic “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry.” Wilkins performed and toured with the M&N Gospel Singers through the 1970’s, before being called to preach. Since 1983, Wilkins has pastored Hunter’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church just outside Como, MS., the same Hunter’s Chapel whose choir recorded a classic album of spirituals with Fred McDowell in 1966 for Testament Records. Hunter’s Chapel also has been home to many players in the North Mississippi Fife and Drum tradition, including fife players Otha Turner and Napoleon Strickland (the latter of whom is buried in the church cemetery). 

Since retiring from the Memphis Parks Dept. in 2006, Rev. John Wilkins has picked up his music career where he left off 25 years earlier, releasing his debut solo album You Can’t Hurry God on Fat Possum Records in 2010. In 2012 an original song from that album, “Let the Redeemed Say So,” was included on the soundtrack to the film Undefeated. 2012 also brought recognition from the Living Blues awards and the annual “Best of Memphis” awards. For the past decade Rev. Wilkins has balanced his duties as minister with fronting a national and international touring band along with his backup singing daughters. Family has always been a foremost priority for Rev. Wilkins and those deep familial ties are evident in the soaring vocals here. 

Trouble is the culmination of everything in Rev. Wilkins’s remarkable life, his regional history, his family music history. And, we’ve come full circle in more ways than one.  With our country once again riven with discord and division, like the Memphis of Wilkins’ youth in the 1960’s, Trouble delivers with a message of hope that meets our present moment equal to the best music from that earlier era. 

Photo Credit: Adam Smith

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